by JJ McCormack, Marketing Coordinator, Yavapai College
Yavapai College (YC) faculty, staff and students who attended spring convocation knew exactly what kind of president they were getting a month before Dr. Lisa Rhine moved into office No. 32-200 on the Prescott campus.
They knew, because in remarks during the semester kickoff gathering, Rhine revealed who she is and where she’s going.
The transparency started with her throwing T-shirts into the audience, warmly patting the cheek of the college’s costumed mascot and heaping praise on outgoing president Dr. Penny Wills. It ended with a standing ovation, tears on the faces of more than a few audience members and embraces for immediate and extended family members on hand to witness Rhine’s YC debut.
When she took the podium, Rhine was still a mystery. Within minutes, she and the audience were kindred souls bound by the common goal of lifting lives and communities with the power of education.
Rhine forged the early connections with a story about a girl named “Hope.” The dark-haired, bespectacled middle-schooler grinning at the audience from a yellowed image on the presentation screen was one of six children reared primarily by a hard-working, but perennially disadvantaged father.
“In America, we’ve been told that if you work hard, you will succeed. So those who do not succeed, do not work hard. It’s an idea held deep in the marrow of our nation. But it’s not true. People are working extremely hard but are nowhere close to being stable,” Rhine told the audience.
Juxtaposed with the image of Hope and descriptions of a childhood hovering on the edge of despair were statistics foretelling the fates of many young people like her: poverty, depression, lifelong struggle.
For example, Rhine shared that 42.4% of Yavapai County residents live below the ALICE threshold. As the acronym denotes, they are Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. Another 13.6% of Yavapai County residents between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected” — not working, not going to school and not in the military. “That’s 2,700 youth that need us. And we need them,” she said. “We need to consider these facts as we design and deliver a learning experience.”
Returning to her protagonist, Rhine said Hope beat the odds by embracing what lay outside of her “chaotic” home environment — education. She excelled in academics and sports and earned a university scholarship. A long commute to a necessary job and a team sport commitment made for a difficult college experience, but Hope persevered, graduating magna cum laude. Full-time work followed, as did the ability to finance graduate and doctoral degrees. “Then, on Dec. 6, 2018, she learned she was selected as the 10th President of Yavapai College.”
Rhine’s revelation that she was Hope elicited gasps and applause from the convocation audience. Checking her own emotions, she continued: “So I tell this story not to impress you, but to impress upon you, that to get an education can be an immense struggle for many. It has nothing to do with a student’s intelligence, capacity or desire.”
Rhine’s keen understanding of the struggles many face on the road to and through college, as well as her awareness of the socio-economic and environmental roadblocks to post-secondary education, color her view from the YC president’s office and fuel her desire to increase educational access and attainment for those who need it most.
She pledged at the conclusion of her convocation speech to reach out to the college and greater community to continue conversations around how best to deliver post-secondary education in Yavapai County and break the cycle of lifelong struggle affecting many young people and families.
“Knowing this information causes us to think differently about student learning, about how we teach, how we serve students, about our policies and procedures, about how we interact with K-12, industry, our career institutions and ask what opportunities do they present to us to improve the student learning experience.”
A month into her presidency, Rhine said she was overwhelmed by the response to her convocation speech, receiving thanks and acknowledgment in person, in emails, cards and letters. She said she knew it was risky telling her first-generation college student story right off the bat.
“I decided I’m just going to show them me. You have to be vulnerable to do that. Either you’re going to connect or you’re not,” she said, noting, “It is the thing that can move people.”
Rhine’s convocation revelation about her own life-changing educational journey left out some details about her career trajectory. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked as a discharge planner in the prison industry and as a mental health caseworker. It was while pursuing her master’s degree in special education that she landed a part-time job as a learning disability specialist at a community college and discovered a passion for education.
“I’ve always been in or sought positions in which I advocated for marginalized or disenfranchised groups,” she said. “I think I did that because of my own experience.”
Rhine continued early in her YC tenure to invite conversations around the opportunities inherent in a radically different world with radically different students than when Yavapai College was established in 1968.
“How can we do a better job at recruiting certain students that really need the opportunity to change their lives? We are the entity to help them have better lives,” she said.
Learn more at yc.edu.